Spark : A Reading Staycation

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Who knew that my home province of British Columbia has produced so many great children’s books? My Reading Staycation project has grown beyond my initial expectations, and I’ve been surprised and delighted by each new discovery!

Spark is the endearing story of a little dragon who just can’t seem to control his flames. He desperately wants to be a fire-breathing dragon like his mama and papa, but all of his efforts seem to end in a big, smokey mess.

Anyone who’s ever worked with young children has likely come across a few little Sparks in their time, enthusiastic kids who just seem to inadvertently wreak havoc wherever they go. From having a voice that carries (no matter how hard they try to use their library voice) to having a grip that sends glue squirting across the table (even when they’re “squeezing gently”), some kids are just waking tornadoes, despite their best attempts to control their exuberance.

Spark.

Not being able to do something can be disheartening and frustrating for any child, especially when they can see others accomplishing the same task with ease. In situations like this, a gentle story like Spark can help remind disappointed children that sometimes things just take a little time. Waiting is hard, but sometimes it’s the only thing that will do the trick.

Kaillie George is a Vancouver-based writer, educator and editor who has published several picture books, early readers and beginner chapter books.

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Kicking it Old School with the Paper Bag Princess

The initial assignment in one of my favourite MLIS classes, Survey of Children’s Literature, was to revisit a favourite picture book and consider whether childhood adoration can survive an adult’s critical eye. I decided to look at the Canadian picture book classic The Paper Bag Princess. Here’s what I wrote.

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch

Long before the feisty Scottish princess Merida of Pixar’s Brave, there was Elizabeth, the spunky young heroine of Robert Munsch’s Canadian classic The Paper Bag Princess. First published in 1980, this simple children’s story, told with humour and illustrated with charm, is the antithesis of the traditional damsel-in-distress fairy tale, and a refreshing reinterpretation of cultural gender norms. Though I was hardly aware of it as a child, the story of The Paper Bag Prince helped shaped my developing view of the world, and my place within it.

As a work of children’s fiction, The Paper Bag Princess remains as relevant today as it was when I was a child. The story’s protagonist Elizabeth begins the story a typical princess, but when a dragon destroys her possessions and steals her prince, Elizabeth sets out to rescue him. Brave and resourceful, Elizabeth uses her intelligence to defeat the dragon, and when the ungrateful prince insults her appearance, she decides she’s better off without him. The Paper Bag Princess delivers a powerful message of female empowerment that’s humorous and engaging, and never heavy-handed or preachy. The story is told so matter-of-factly that its reversal of traditional gender roles seems entirely natural and believable, the way it ought to be. Elizabeth is a straight-forward character who sees a problem and discovers a non-violent way to solve it. By presenting the princess as a strong, intelligent character who just happens to be female, The Paper Bag Princess puts the emphasis on her personality and actions, rather than on her gender. The message to children is simple, yet powerful – gender need not define who you are, or determine what you are capable of.

 When I was first introduced to The Paper Bag Princess as a child, I knew nothing of notions of female empowerment or gender equality. I loved the story because it was funny, with an exciting plot and delightful illustrations of dragons. Robert Munsch created in Elizabeth a female character that was immensely appealing as well as empowering. Even as a child, I knew that Elizabeth was a special character, a girl who took on dragons and stuck her tongue out at boys. I may not have realized then that she was shaping my understandings of gender norms, but I did know that she was more impressive than the usual boring storybook princesses! The Paper Bag Princess gently reinforces cherished lessons that last a life-time: that intelligence is powerful; individuals should be judged on their character, not their appearance; violence is not the only solution; and all relationships should be based on respect.

As an adult I appreciate more than ever the positive spirit of The Paper Bag Princess and its emphasis on intelligence and bravery, particularly when so much of today’s media seems to reinforce negative gender norms for young girls. The Paper Bag Princess is a story at once powerful and light-hearted, and its endearing protagonist is a role model who delights as much as she empowers. I can only hope that future generations find as much pleasure and encouragement in this story as I once did, over 20 years ago.

Munsch, Robert N., and Michael Martchenko. The paper bag princess. Toronto: Annick Press, 1980. Print.

Tiptoe Joe

Tiptoe fast,

Tiptoe slow,

Say hello to Tiptoe Joe.

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Tiptoe Joe is pretty much toddler time perfection. Bouncy, rhyming text, short phrases, sweet characters and lots of opportunities for simple actions make this a winning choice, and I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to discover it!

Tiptoe Joe, a red sneaker-wearing bear, tiptoes around the forest inviting his animal friends to join him for a surprise. The animals clop clop, thump thump, flap flap, thud thud, swish swish, and slap slap after him, to discover that Tiptoe Joe’s secret, and the reason he’s being so quiet, is a pair of adorable new little bear cubs, curled up fast asleep.

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This book must’ve been written with story time in mind. I love the repeated phrases “(animal, animal) come with me. I know something you should see.” and ” Tell us, tell us, Tiptoe Joe. What’s the secret? Let us know.”, which remind of some of my other favourite story time books, like I Went Walking, Brown Bear Brown Bear, This Little Chick and Monkey and Me.  There’s a great sense of rhythm, and the rhymes are really effective.

I can also picture using this with my toddlers and getting them flapping and swishing like the owl and the turkey and thudding like the moose. The actions are simple and repetitive, which is great for adorably clumsy little toddlers who are just figuring out this whole motor-skills thing.

This simple, happy little story is definitely worth checking out, especially if you’ve got toddler times coming up!

Grumpy Bird – A Reading Staycation

“When Bird woke up, he was grumpy.”

Well, who can’t relate to that opening sentence? I think we’ve all woken up on the wrong side of the bed like Bird, grumpy and grouchy for no apparent reason, and frustrated to the brim with the world and everyone in it.

Bird is too grumpy to eat, he’s too grumpy to play, he’s too grumpy even to fly, which means he has no choice but to walk to get where he’s going. Turns out all the other animals in his neighborhood LOVE walking, and Bird quickly finds himself a pied piper of sorts, leading the rest of the animals in a jaunt around the woods. When Bird realizes that the other animals are following his lead, and that he can make them do silly things like stand on one leg or jump, he forgets all about his grumpy mood, and invites all of his new friends back to his nest for a snack.

OK, so it’s not the most complex picture book out there, but that’s what makes it such a perfect group read-aloud. The story is short and direct enough to grab and hold the attention of a wiggly audience, the text is simple with just enough repetition, and there are plenty of opportunities to really ham it up as Bird grows more and more exasperated with his too-cheerful neighbors. The illustrations are just awesome – bold black lines, simple shapes, expressive characters, primary colours and few fine details make for eye-catching images that really work well when shared with a crowd.

Grumpy Bird is just so appealing because we’ve all been Grumpy Bird – grumpy, grouchy, and annoyed by every chirpy, cheerful, annoyingly well-meaning person we come across. Hello, Mondays….

Originally from South Africa, Jeremy Tankard lived in several different cities before settling with his family in Vancouver. He was the artist for the BC Summer Reading Club in 2014, and is the author and/or illustrator of several picture books. I also met him once when he brought his family into the central library (I gave him the key to the family washroom), and he was very nice.

Review: Otter Goes to School

Back to school?!? Didn’t school just let out for the summer?! Here in Vancouver, most kids are still only about half way through their summer holidays, with school not resuming until September, but in cities across North America students and teachers are already packing their bags and getting read to head back to school.

So, why not celebrate their misfortune with an adorable school-themed picture book?

Otter Goes to School follows the adorable, hapless character Otter as she decides to start a school for her stuffed toy friends. There are several books in the Otter series, both picture books and early readers, and they are all, dare I say it, adorable. And trust me, that’s not a bad thing. I challenge you to read this picture book and not want to pick up that squishy, fuzzy little otter and give her a great big snuggle. This is definitely a roll-polly, cuddly protagonist that will readily appeal to young readers.

In Otter Goes to School, Otter begins to doubt her abilities as a teacher when one of her toy students, Teddy, declares the he doesn’t like school, and that he’s worried that all the other students are better than him at everything. Poor Otter doesn’t know how to help Teddy discover his hidden talents, and playing school suddenly isn’t very fun anymore.

Good old Otter Keeper, who sort of plays the role of Dave in Alvin and the Chipmunks here, reassures Otter than everyone is good at something, and that sometimes it just takes a bit of time to uncover what that something is. It’s a familiar story, reminiscent of Excellent Ed, but one that bears repeating. In a way, Otter Goes to School is written as much for teachers and caregivers as it is for young children. When our students or our children struggle in school and lose faith in themselves, our own belief in our abilities as carers and educators can take a major hit, too.

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It never hurts to have a gentle reminder that sometimes connecting with children can take time, more than a little effort, and sometimes a change in perspective, and that the bumps in the road are natural, and aren’t indicators of our abilities as educators or caregivers.

And honestly – if you need a pick-me-up, just look at this cuddly otter! It’s so cuddly!!

Binky the Space Cat – A Reading Staycation

We’re kicking off Beautiful British Columbia : A Reading Staycation with a bang! Our first book comes to us from the pride of Ladner, talented author-illustrator Ashley Spires. If you haven’t heard of Binky the Space Cat, you’d better fix that, pronto. This fun series of early graphic novels features Binky, a house cat who’s convinced that he’s actually a space cat, charged by a secret organization with the protection of his human family. Armed with space cat technology, Binky fights off evil aliens (which look remarkably like houseflies), keeping his house and his family safe. Is Binky really a space cat, or he is just a frisky feline with a very fanciful imagination? You decide!

Ashley Spires has created several books about Binky the Space Cat, and the character remains one of B.C.’s most recognizable literary exports. Binky the Space Cat was nominated for the 2011 Silver Birch Express Award and the 2011 Hackmatack Award, and there are six Binky titles in the series.

Spires has recently introduced a spin-off series of graphic novels featuring Fluffy Vandermere, the cat sergeant in charge of P.U.R.S.T. (Pets of the Universe Ready for Space Travel), which are just as weird and hilarious as you might expect.

Cleverly illustrated with charming animal characters and silly, sly text, Binky the Space Cat is highly appealing to emerging readers, and acts as a great introduction to the graphic novel medium.

On a related note, I just had to include this quote from a review of the sequel Binky to Rescue  I found on Amazon:

This is a Canadian children’s series, which makes for some interesting comparisons. The Canadians are different from you and me. They have a bit of a European sensibility to their comics. For the most part Binky is like any other comic you might name, though shots of his rear are amusingly French. He also seems to suffer from a bit of space gas, but a big deal isn’t made about this. If you have kids that are desperate to find fart jokes in all their literature then I’m sure they’ll be adequately amused by the little “poooot!” but for other readers it will hardly register.

Yes, dear readers, we Canadians are indeed different.

Beautiful British Columbia – A Reading Staycation

 My partner and I were planning a brief getaway over the B.C. Day long weekend when we hit a few snags in our plans. Well, one major snag, really – the Canadian dollar. We originally wanted to drive down to one of our favourite cities, Portland, Oregon, for a few days of craft beer tasting and Powell’s Books browsing. High season hotel prices and a weak Canadian dollar torpedoed our plans, though, and we decided to try something a little closer to home – Vancouver Island.

What we found was spectacular – breathtaking beaches and luxurious rainforests in Tofino and Ucluelet, fantastic used book stores and tourist delights in Victoria, and great craft breweries in quirky towns up and down the island. We had a fantastic experience exploring our own backyard.

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If you’re politely wondering what the point of all this is, it’s to introduce a little project I’m embarking on, which I’ve unimaginatively dubbed  Beautiful British Columbia : A Reading Staycation. Inspired by the beauty and diversity of my home province, I’m going to be exploring children’s books written and/or illustrated by British Columbian authors over the next few weeks. I hope you’ll join me!

Stay tuned…..